October 18, 2017

Shaw and Saint Joan

On this day in 1431 Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. She first heard her voices at the age of twelve; she began fighting at seventeen; she was in prison most of her eighteenth year; her trial began in January of 1431, just about her nineteenth birthday; on the last, May day, the Maid of Orleans was put to death slowly and curiously -- kept back from the center of the fire, withdrawn from it once dead so that she could be examined for gender, put back in until ash, and thrown in the Seine.

These events have been interpreted in all art forms but especially on stage, beginning just a few years after Joan's death. The most famous modern Joan is George Bernard Shaw's, his play premiering in New York in 1923, just three years after she was canonized. Shaw had been nominated for a Nobel a handful of times already, so perhaps it was to be expected, but his Saint Joan converted the unbelievers and he won the 1925 Prize.

In the audience for the New York opening was Luigi Pirandello. Invited to comment by the New York Times, Pirandello had high praise for the production; he was also the first of many to note that Shaw's Joan was an image of himself: the archetypal, can't-keep-quiet Protestant. Shaw's preface to the play, written the following year and fifty pages long, agreeably described Joan as "one of the first Protestant martyrs." Shaw also thought Joan "the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages," one who was punished "essentially for what we call unwomanly and insufferable presumption." She was "a born boss" because "She could coax and she could hustle, her tongue having a soft side and a sharp edge." No one should believe any "nonsense about Joan being cracked" or doubt the great social need for people with "a large liberty to shock conventional people" with their "originality, individuality, and eccentricity." As for who is cracked: "To Joan and her contemporaries we should appear as a drove of Gadarene swine, possessed by all the unclean spirits cast out by the faith and civilization of the Middle Ages, running violently down a steep place into a hell of high explosives." Much of all this extends the Joan-Shaw parallel, and biographer Michael Holroyd goes one further. He says that Shaw was appalled at his Nobel "canonization" because he didn't want to give up his Joan-status as a modern heretic who loved his role of shocking sense into society. "The Nobel Prize has been a hideous calamity for me," Shaw told a friend, "... almost as bad as my 70th birthday."

Almost as bad as giving up the Protestant role was getting the prize money. When the prize was announced, the world "wrote to me for loans, mostly for the entire sum"; when Shaw refused the Nobel money, the situation got worse:
    ... another million or so wrote to say that if I was rich enough to throw away money like that, I could afford to adopt their children, or pay off the mortgages on their houses ... or let them have XXXX pounds, to be repaid punctually next May, or to publish a priceless book explaining the mystery of the universe. It says a good deal for female virtue that only two women proposed that I should take them on as mistresses.
Holroyd says that to handle the crisis Shaw "began practising a complicated facial expression which combined universal benevolence with a savage determination to rescue no one from financial ruin." Or as his Joan put it: "Woe unto me when all men praise me!"

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